BLOOMINGDALE, Ohio — Jerome Coniker was laid to rest July 12 at Catholic Familyland in Bloomingdale, Ohio, in the crypt of St. John Vianney Chapel, next to his beloved wife and Servant of God Gwen Coniker, after a Mass of Christian burial.
Surrounded by many family members and loved ones, Coniker died July 4 at his daughter Maureen’s home. He was 79 years old.
Best known as Jerry, Coniker touched the lives of countless thousands via his Catholic apostolates. Jerry and Gwen founded the Apostolate for Family Consecration (AFC, AFC.org), an evangelization organization that aims to strengthen family life and make faith come alive for parents and their children, in 1975 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after they returned from living for two years in Fatima, Portugal. Jerry had given up his systems and manufacturing business to move the family near the Fatima shrine. The Conikers returned to the United States with a fervent wish to strengthen America’s Christian values and family life in light of the spiritual war accelerating in the culture. In 1990, the Conikers brought the AFC to Bloomingdale, Ohio, when they purchased a former seminary complex.
In Bloomingdale, the Conikers founded Catholic Familyland in 1991 as part of AFC to host “Holy Family Fests” and conferences on the 803-acre property, where families could learn how to strive to live and grow in their faith.
The Conikers were also known to Catholics through thousands of shows on a variety of catecheses taped by the AFC. The enormous collection amounts to 20,000 hours’ worth of shows in the AFC library, more than 15,000 hours in which Coniker himself appears.
“Jerry Coniker was a tireless worker. He rested very little,” Cardinal Francis Arinze told the Register. “He loved the Church and was very dedicated to Pope John Paul II (now saint) and his teachings.”
“I found Jerry Coniker a man totally occupied with sharing the Gospel, especially with the family,” Cardinal Arinze observed. “He and his wife, Gwen, founded the Apostolate for Family Consecration as an apostolate to help good Christian families to become and perform better, and all Christian family members to know the faith better, to share it with other families and to pray in the family.” To that goal, Coniker produced shows with Cardinal Arinze on everything from the Gospels and John Paul II documents to the AFC’s own approved catechism. Cardinal Arinze spent one week a year for 20 years at Catholic Familyland producing such Catholic media.
Since 2009, EWTN has aired more than 600 half-hour shows from AFC on many topics. Before that, the network ran such shows as Be Not Afraid Holy Hour, which debuted in 1992, and The Spirit of John Paul II, which debuted in 1995.
Over the years, Coniker had major Catholic personages appear on his filmed shows as well as being speakers at family fests, family conferences and retreats, such as Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, Divine Mercy expert Father George Kosicki, Franciscan University president Father Michael Scanlon, Bible scholar Jeff Cavins, singer Dana Scallon, and philosopher Alice von Hildebrand — not to mention cardinals, bishops, priests and prominent laity.
“For many years, Jerry Coniker was a regular presence on EWTN, and longtime viewers of the network will recall his frequent conversations with Mother Teresa of Calcutta and his hours of discussions on nearly every spiritual topic one could imagine with Cardinal Arinze,” said Michael Warsaw, the chairman of the board and CEO of EWTN Global Catholic Network. “He was an amazing man who was tireless in the pursuit of his vision of an apostolate that could have a real impact on uniting families and deepening the spiritual understanding of adults and children of every age.”
The very first show Coniker taped was an interview with Mother Teresa. She suggested he help parents learn to consecrate their families so that God becomes central in their lives. The Conikers followed the saint’s advice, developing programs to help families on their journeys of faith, with heaven as their ultimate goal, and to support the parents’ role as primary educators of their children. St. Teresa of Calcutta was on the AFC advisory council beginning in 1976.
The Conikers were exemplars of what they taught. Twelve of their 13 children, along with their spouses, survive their father. Gwen died in 2002; in 2007, she was named a “Servant of God” by the Church. Jerry is also survived by 75 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Coniker’s daughter Theresa Schmitz, AFC and Familyland’s director of the board, executive vice president and chief operating officer, remembers how her “dad started recording in the ’80s and shortly after that was on EWTN.” She also said Mother Angelica had met the Conikers at their Wisconsin center, and even before she launched EWTN.
In her personal statement after his passing, she extolled how “salvation of souls and the protection of families through consecration were his passion. He desired the laity to know and embrace their call to holiness, to be saints, because he was convinced that ordinary fathers, mothers and children can help to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth when they make their daily family life an offering to God.”
Biblical scholar, theologian and author Scott Hahn remembers well how he met Coniker in Kenosha just weeks after Hahn entered the Church in Milwaukee.
“It was a great experience for me as a brand-new Catholic to see their relatively new apostolate reaching families — not just individuals, or those who were spouses, but families,” Hahn said.
Hahn also recounted how “by God’s providence, we both moved to Steubenville at about the same time. They became an affiliate of (Franciscan University of) Steubenville as I was beginning my position there.” With the AFC and Franciscan University only 20 minutes apart, “We had a chance to connect on dozens and dozens of occasions. We filmed well over 100 hours of shows together.” Hahn and his wife, Kimberly, went to the various AFC conferences and family fests for a number of years.
In 2007, Pope Benedict named AFC “a private international association of the faithful of pontifical right.” Before that, in 1999, Pope St. John Paul II named the Conikers as advisers on the Pontifical Council for the Family and in 2004 named Jerry a consultor for the council.
The apostolate’s Family Catechism received major endorsements, and St. John Paul II wrote a letter commending the AFC’s first “Totus Tuus: Consecrate Them in Truth Family Conference” in 1993. The Holy Father and the Conikers were friends, meeting several times. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among many others endorsing AFC.
Example of True Marriage
Warsaw knew the Conikers well. “I was blessed to know Jerry and his wife, Gwen, who was a holy woman of deep faith, and to interact with them throughout the years,” he said. “I remember sitting alongside them at St. Peter’s during the ‘Jubilee of Families’ Mass in 2000 with Pope John Paul II. It was a remarkable event, and it was a blessing to share it with two extraordinary people who had devoted their lives to the work of evangelization of the family. May God bless Jerry and Gwen for their faithfulness.”
Hahn also observed, “For the longest time, Jerry had that kind of virtue and passion that is befitting a man who is striving to become a saint. I really believe that, over the years, as a follower of Jesus and especially as a husband, father and founder of the apostolate, if anybody can achieve true sanctity” in the moral chaos of today’s culture, “he did.”
It is difficult to speak separately of Jerry from Gwen. The Conikers, who were high-school sweethearts, were prime examples of Catholic family life.
“Personally, I do believe they exemplified holiness as a married couple in a really unique, radical way,” Hahn told the Register. “For American Catholicism, their life, their mission, their apostolate is truly a revelation of love and faith and family life.”
Hahn further reflected how he saw the Conikers as “a saintly couple in raising up kids to carry on their mission. It’s one thing to have a vision and another to impart it. To a great extent, not only have they passed on the faith, but they passed on their vision and their mission.”
As Hahn also shared, “I feel the loss of not only a powerful figure in faith, but a close friend and one who impacted so many friends of ours.”
That influence has proven lasting. “That the Apostolate for Family Consecration continues to do well, when Jerry and Gwen are no longer there, is good proof of their good work,” shared Cardinal Arinze. “May God give this great Catholic couple eternal rest and bless their 12 children and the apostolate they founded.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.